1. By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, we even wept when we remembered thee, O Zion! 2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.3. Then they that carried us away captive required of us the words of a song, and mirth when we were in suspense, saying, Sing to us one of the songs of Zion.4. How shall we sing Jehovah's song in a foreign land?
1. By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down I have elsewhere said, that it is a great mistake to suppose that it is David who here prophetically apprises the people of God of the captivity which should come upon them. The Prophets in speaking of future events employ very different language. What is brought under notice is the event as now historically come, and matter of experience. We shall briefly explain the scope of the Psalmist. There was danger that the Jews when cast off in such a melancholy manner should lose hold altogether of their faith and of their religion. Considering how ready we are, when mixed up with the wicked and ungodly, to fall into superstition or evil practices, it was to be feared that they might wax profane amongst the population of Babylon. The people of the Lord might be thrown into despondency, besides, by their captivity, the cruel bondage they were subjected to, and the other indignities which they had to endure. The writer of this Psalm, whose name is unknown, drew up a form of lamentation, that by giving expression to their sufferings in sighs and prayers, they might keep alive the hope of that deliverance which they despaired of. Another end he has in view, is to warn them against, the decline of godliness in an irreligious land, and against; defilement with the contaminations of the heathen. Accordingly he denounces merited judgment upon the children of Edom, and declares that Babylon, whose prosperity, shortlived as it was destined to be in itself, eclipsed at that time the rest of the world, was an object of pity, and near to destruction. The length of time during which the captivity lasted, may of itself convince us how useful and even necessary it must have been to support the fainting minds of God's people. They must have been ready to acquiesce in the corrupt practices of the heathen, unless endued with surprising mental fortitude through a period of seventy years.
When they are said to have sat, this denotes a continued period of captivity, that they were not only torn from the sight of their native country, but in a manner buried and entombed. The demonstrative adverb of place, sm, sham, there, is emphatical, setting the subject, as it were, before the eyes of the reader. Though the pleasantness of the country, irrigated by streams, might have had an effect in soothing their dejected minds, we are told that the Lord's people, so long as they dwelt there, were continually in tears. The particle gm, gam, even, is used as being intensative, to let us know that the true fearers of the Lord could not be tempted by all the luxuries of Babylon to forget their native inheritance. The language is such as to intimate at the same time that they were not so entirely overwhelmed by their calamities as not to recognize in them the deserved chatisement of God, and that they were not chargeable with obstinately struggling against him; for tears are the expression of humility and penitence, as well as of distress. This appears still more plainly from its being Zion they remembered, which proves that what had charms for them was not any advantage of a worldly kind they might there enjoy:, but the worship of God. God had erected his sanctuary like a flag upon mount Zion, that as often as they looked to it, they might be assured of his salvation. Fair then and fertile as was the region where they dwelt, with charms which could corrupt effeminate minds, and long as they were detained in it, tears, which are proverbially soon dried up, never ceased to stream from their eyes, because they were cut off from the worship of God, upon which they were wont to attend, and felt that they were torn from the inheritance of promise.
2. We hanged our harps upon the willows He deplores the suspension of the songs of praise, which God had enjoined in his Temple. The Levites were set over the department of singing, and led the way among the people in this devotional exercise. Is it asked how they had carried their harps with them so far from their native land, we have in this another proof mentioned by the Psalmist of their faith and fervent piety, for the Levites when stripped of all their fortunes had preserved their harps at least as a piece of precious furniture, to be devoted to a former use when opportunity presented itself. We may suppose that those who truly feared God put a high value upon the relics of his worship, and showed the greatest care in preserving them, till the period of their restoration. When willows are mentioned, this denotes the pleasantness of the banks, which were planted with willows for coolness. But the Psalmist says that these shades, however delightful, could not dispel a grief which was too deeply seated to admit of common consolations or refreshment. As they sat upon the banks of the rivers covered with the shadows of the trees, this was just the place where they might have been tempted to take up their harps, and soothe their griefs with song; but the Psalmist suggests that their minds were too heavily wounded with a sense of the displeasure of the Lord to deceive themselves with such idle sources of comfort. He would even go farther, and intimate that joy of a good and holy kind was at this time suspended. For though it was neither right nor well judged to encourage their grief, we cannot wonder if the singing of praises in public was given up till their return from the captivity, called as they were by the chastisements of God to mourning and lamentation.
3. Then they that carried us away captive, etc. We may be certain that the Israelites were treated with cruel severity under this barbarous tyranny to which they were subjected. And the worst affliction of all was, that their conquerors reproachfully insulted them, and even mocked them, their design being less to wound the hearts of these miserable exiles, than to cast blasphemies upon their God. The Babylonians had no desire to hear their sacred songs, and very likely would not have suffered them to engage in the public praises of God, but they speak ironically, and insinuate it as a reproach upon the Levites that they should be silent, when it was their custom formerly to sing sacred songs. Is your God dead, as if they had said, to whom your praises were formerly addressed? Or if he delights in your songs, why do you not sing them? The last clause of the verse has been variously rendered by interpreters. Some derive tvllynv, tholalenu, from the verb lly, yalal, to howl, reading -- they required mirth in our howlings. Others translate it suspensions of mirth. Some take it for a participle of the verb hll, halal, to rage, and read, raging against us. But as tlynv, talinu, the root of the noun here employed, is taken in the preceding verse as meaning to suspend, I considered the reading which I have adopted the simplest one.
4. How shall we sing, etc. The Psalmist puts a lofty and magnanimous answer into the mouth of the Lord's people to their insolent reproach, which is this, that they abstained from their songs, as from their legal sacrifices, because the land where they now were was polluted. The Chaldeans thought the Jews were bound down permanently to this place of their exile; the Psalmist, when he calls it a foreign land, suggests that it was but the place of their temporary stay. But the main idea is, that Chaldea was not worthy of the honor of having God's praises sung in it. No doubt the children of God wherever they have lived have always been strangers and foreigners in the world, but the land of Canaan was the sacred rest provided for them, and the Psalmist well describes them as being foreigners and sojourners when they were in other climes. He would in this way have them to be always ready and prepared for their return, tacitly enforcing what Jeremiah had prophesied, when, in order to prevent them from forgetting their native country, he had definitely foretold the time during which their exile should last, (Jeremiah 25:11; Jeremiah 29:10.) He would in the meantime animate them to constancy, and have them not to coalesce with the Babylonians through motives of fear. In our own day under the Papacy, great as the danger may be to which the faithful expose themselves by not conforming to the example around them, the Holy Spirit makes use of such a barrier as this to separate them from sinful compliances. To those, whether Frenchmen, Englishmen, or Italians, who love and practice the true religion, even their native country is a foreign clime when they live under that tyranny. And yet there is a distinction between us and God's ancient people, for at that time the worship of God was confined to one place, but now he has his Temple wherever two or three are met together in Christ's name, if they separate themselves from all idolatrous profession, and maintain purity of divine worship. The Psalmist by the language which he employs would by no means put down every attempt on their part to celebrate God's praises. He rather exhorts them under their affliction to wait with patience till the liberty of publicly worshipping God was restored, saying' upon the matter -- We have been bereft of our Temple and sacrifices, we wander as exiles in a polluted land, and what remains but that in remembrance of our outcast state we should sigh and groan for the promised deliverance.